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Iceman (2014)
1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Unless a key to a time-traveling device made up of a deity's enormous penis or Donnie Yen's peeing like a water cannon is entertainment, this 'Iceman' will freeze you over, 17 April 2014
4/10

Let us begin by setting the record straight. We are big Donnie Yen fans. Even before he became a household name with 'Ip Man', we admired the kung fu star for his uniquely thrilling moves in 'SPL'. Still, even his most loyal fans will probably be wondering just why he has appeared in one bad movie after another in recent times. Indeed, his last good one was Peter Chan's 'Wu Xia' back in 2012; since then, 'Together', 'Special ID' and 'The Monkey King' have not only been bad movies, at least the first two have approached the point of being unwatchable, which is something we'd thought we'd never say about a Donnie Yen film.

'Iceman' could very well have been that turning point in Yen's string of duds. Its source material was Clarence Fok's 1989 martial arts fantasy 'The Iceman Cometh', an entertaining blend of action, comedy, romance and period drama starring Yuen Biao, Maggie Cheung and Yuen Wah. Its budget is an eye-popping HK$200 million dollars. And even before its release, there has been much hype about a climactic sequence set on Hong Kong's iconic Tsing Ma Bridge which cost an additional HK$50 million dollars to film because the authorities wouldn't give the filmmakers permission to do so on location. In essence, this Captain America of the East was supposed to be big-budget action blockbuster spectacle, weighty enough to warrant a two-parter release not unlike 'Red Cliff'.

Yet after all that hype, 'Iceman' is worse than 'The Monkey King' and almost as bad as 'Special ID'. Much of that has to do with the tonally incoherent plot by Lam Fung which manages to be overplotted and dramatically undernourished at the same time. Working upon the original's concept of a Ming Dynasty warrior who awakens 400 years later to find himself in modern-day Hong Kong and continue a feud that began as far back, Lam throws in multiple subplots criss-crossing present and past. There is Yen's search for a time-travelling Golden Wheel of Time that is operated by a key called the Linga. There is a corrupt Police Commissioner (Simon Yam) bent on recovering Yen and his fellow frozen guards to apparently sell them to the North Koreans. And last but not least, there is Yen's budding romance with a nightclub hostess (Eva Huang), who is caring for her sickly mother in an expensive old folks' home.

The combination of so many disparate parts makes for an extremely disjointed whole, and it doesn't help that director Law Wing Cheong seems entirely overwhelmed at maintaining some semblance of coherence. His storytelling lurches backwards and forwards across time with little narrative flow or momentum - and what makes it worse is just how tonally jarring the shifts are, from comedy to romance to period fantasy and then to surprisingly graphic action. Law also seems to have gone way out of his league from the Johnnie To-like rom-coms ('2 Become 1' and 'Hooked on You') and crime dramas ('Punished') to large-scale blockbuster territory - notwithstanding his little-seen 'The Wrath of Vajra' last year - and simply lost his footing even on the very basic level of staging a compelling enough sequence.

The same could be said of lead star and action director Donnie Yen. Even when everything else was a letdown, the very marquee name of Yen promised that at least the action would not disappoint; alas not even in that regard does 'Iceman' count for anything. Save for the much touted finale on the Tsing Ma bridge, the rest of the action sequences here seem almost like an afterthought, too reliant on the kind of unrealistic wirework that B-grade properties oft relied on. And when we finally end up on the bridge, Yen becomes too obsessed with making this a 3D movie by hurling all sorts of weaponry towards his audience that it just becomes too gimmicky to take seriously. It is scant compensation for the seemingly interminable one half hour wait, and ultimately disappointing because neither Wang Baoqiang nor Kang Yu as his nemeses are anywhere near close to being Yen's worthy on screen opponents.

There are occasional pleasures though, and these often occur at times when the movie simply refuses to take itself seriously. We're not denying that these slapstick moments will be utterly cringe-worthy to many, but hey we take what we can get. For instance, we laughed when Yen first bursts out of his cryogenic tomb and then releases his urine like a water cannon. Ditto for his favourite catchphrase literally translated as 'your mother's breasts' in Chinese. Or how about when Wang and Yu start learning words like 'chicken curry spaghetti' from a gang of Indian grifters after saving them from the cops? There are also other fish-out-of-water comedic moments that border or belong in cheese, but that's the only kind of entertainment you're going to get out of 'Iceman'.

If you're going to try to enjoy 'Iceman' therefore, it's important to set your expectations just right. Don't go in expecting the kind of popcorn blockbuster that 'Captain America' ever was, for Chinese cinema has yet to produce a modern-day superhero movie that didn't suck (think Benny Chan's 'City Under Siege'). Don't go in expecting the kind of good old-fashioned martial arts action Donnie Yen presented in 'Ip Man' or the kind of gritty MMA fighting in 'SPL' or 'Special ID', for there is nothing but a gimmicky 3D sequence right at the end that matters at all. And don't go in expecting this to be any better than Yen's recent batch of movies, for this is just one more in a bad streak that we hope will be frozen forever in time.

22 out of 46 people found the following review useful:
This directorial debut by Nolan's "protege" Wally Pfister is dumb sci-fi masquerading as intelligence, its intellect as artificial as the acting, the action and the love story, 17 April 2014
3/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

'Transcendence' might not be the first movie to cast doubt on mankind's love affair with technology, but it could quite possibly be the first to fail so tremendously on the back of such promise. Billed as the debut feature from longtime Christopher Nolan d.p. Wally Pfister (and executive produced by Nolan as well as Nolan's wife Emma Thomas), it has an all-star cast in Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and Morgan Freeman not unlike the kind of star power that Nolan assembled for his blockbuster sci-fi thriller 'Inception'.

And yet to hope that 'Transcendence' could be the kind of smart, thought-provoking sci-fi that 'Inception' was is indeed foolhardy, for as much as it wants to be about artificial intelligence and expound ideas like singularity, It ultimately displays little - or for that matter any sign of intellect - throughout its extremely tiresome 119- minute duration. Blame it on Jack Paglen's excruciatingly dumb script, whose only stroke of genius might be to try to cull from the theories of singularity glorified by the likes of Ray Kurzweil the film's titular premise of transcendence, no matter the fact that it pretty much crashes and burns all the way through.

As such cautionary tales are oft to have, there are the proponents and opponents of technology. On the former, there's Dr Will Caster (Depp), his wife Evelyn (Hall) and their colleague Dr Max Waters (Bettany), whose work on artificial intelligence has been recognised as one of the most cutting-edge throughout the country. On the latter, there's the anti-tech terrorist group called Revolutionary Independence From Technology (or RIFT in short) led by Bree (Mara), who in the opening minutes of the film is shown to have choreographed a series of coordinated attacks across multiple AI labs, including that of researcher Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman).

RIFT is also responsible for the shooter who fatally wounds Will with a radiation-laced bullet, who is given weeks to live by his doctor. And so, together with Evelyn and Max, Will makes the previously unthinkable choice of uploading his entire consciousness onto a super-computer known simply as PINN (which stands for Physically Integrated Neural Network). Therein lies the catch of Paglen's story - is the amalgamation of PINN and Will man or machine? Even as the AI talks and thinks like Will, can we trust that it is operating by the mind of Will or by its own will (pardon the pun)? What exactly is it up to? Should we wait to find out or take the pre-emptive step to destroy what is essentially yet another deeply flawed creation by mankind in its blind zeal to play God?

Intriguing ideas and questions no doubt; unfortunately, Paglen's execution is anything but. Despite its ambition, it doesn't transcend the kind of bad 1990s movies like 'Virtuosity', 'Lawnmower Man' or 'The Net' in developing the extent to which a self-aware human/computer hybrid intelligence could evolve, grow and change the world; after all, Will's plan to escape detection from the Feds (led by Murphy's Agent Buchanan) is to build an enormous data centre powered by thousands of solar panels in a deserted town in the California desert, a recourse which doesn't take a genius to figure out is plain unrealistic to assume would escape detection by any Government authority. Where it does try to be revolutionary, it ends up being laughable. Not only does Will's plan involve healing the sick and infirmed by turning them into his nanotechnology slaves, he is apparently able to use that same technology to become one with Nature – and giving new meaning to 'cloud storage' in the process.

Even if one is able to suspend disbelief for such hocus-pocus, Pfister makes it such a difficult sell. There is little coherence to the way scenes are assembled, or how characters fade in and out of the picture, and it is immediately glaring just how devoid of staging or narrative momentum Pfister seems to have a grip on. Even more problematic is how Pfister seems to have little grasp of the passage of time in the movie, such that events jump ahead with little sense of how they fit in with what we had seen earlier and inadvertently resulting in the kind of logic gaps that make the overall film even more disengaging. Such fundamental issues are no doubt challenges first-time directors face, but you probably don't expect that of someone who has practically been crowned Nolan's protégé.

Pfister is not helped by his lead actor's literally lifeless performance. Yes, Depp may have rode on kooky roles in Tim Burton's films and of course the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise to popularity, but he is entirely out of his depth when it comes to portraying less eccentric individuals that doesn't require him to ham it up. As wooden whether in human or machine form, Depp seems entirely disinterested in the whole venture, and shares absolutely zero chemistry with his female co-star Hall. Neither do the supporting cast do any better in fact, and whether Bettany, Murphy or Freeman, each just seem to be doing his dues in order to gain favour for Nolan's next gig.

As harsh as it may sound, Pfister is no Nolan, and it is evidently clear in 'Transcendence' that he lacks the vision to pull together a layered poignant blockbuster the way Nolan did with 'Inception'. The parallels are there – not only are both cautionary tales, they are also meant to be big-budget action spectacles built on an emotional core. But the action here rarely thrills - even the finale where the Feds join forces with RIFT to launch an assault on Will's compound straight out of a 1950s B-movie - and the melodrama confused and muddled. Considering the talent, pedigree and consequent expectations, this is unquestionably an utter disappointment.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Combining gritty action with character-driven drama and elements of psychological horror, Dante Lam delivers his most mature, intense, and compelling masterpiece to date, 15 April 2014
8/10

After a detour into Hollywood blockbuster territory and another more successful one into the world of MMA, Dante Lam returns to the cop thriller genre that he has carved a name out of in recent years with the critically acclaimed character driven pieces 'The Stool Pigeon' and 'The Beast Stalker'. Reuniting with his frequent muse/ writing partner Jack Ng, 'that Demon Within' sees Lam fusing the themes of good versus evil in his earlier movies with the design of a supernatural horror to create what is possibly his most mature, intense, and compelling masterpiece to date.

In the titular role of the troubled cop is the upright constable Dave Wong (Daniel Wu), whose ignorance leads him to dutifully donate blood when Hong Kong's most wanted criminal Hon stumbles into the A&E of a hospital bleeding and heavily injured. Turns out that Hon (also known as the Demon King) had just escaped from being caught by the police in his flat after he and his gang of violent criminals engaged the cops in a fierce shootout following a diamond heist worth $80 million dollars; and Dave's act of kindness earns the consternation of Senior Inspector Mok (Dominic Lam), bent on putting Hon and his gang before bars before his imminent retirement.

That single event turns Dave's carefully constructed world inside out. Though it may seem at first that Dave is simply over-righteous, we realise that he is a person with his own issues to deal, a loner prone to bouts of intense anger and paranoia. In fact, joining the police force was his way of finding some semblance of stability in his life, a safe harbour if you will that becomes anything but as his guilt manifests itself in hallucinations, impulses and even occasional episodes of self-flagellation as a form of anger management. And slowly but surely, Dave becomes obsessed with Hon, seeing visions of the two of them merging together as one, or of Hon's apparition in the form of a visual representation of the Demon King (depicted as a burning face) goading him into relenting to his savage instincts.

While it may seem as if he has his sights squarely on Hon at the start, Lam's intents for his film to be a character study on Dave becomes much clearer later on. Eschewing the more affluent parts of Hong Kong, Lam chooses instead for his characters to inhabit the squalid housing estates of Kowloon City and Sai Ying Pun, the choice of location especially befitting of the dark tone he opts for here. It isn't just Hon whose worship of the Demon King proves extremely unsettling, but the image of Dave framed against metal gates and sealed windows in his apartment adds to the disquieting mood that Lam conveys with panache.

More so than in any of his movies, Lam explores, as its title suggests, the latent evil that exists within an individual. That is plainly evident in Hon, but much more complex in Dave, whose "personality issues" come to light in hynopsis sessions with his sister Stephanie (Astrid Chan) that hinges on his traumatic childhood with a strict and sadistic father. As Dave struggles to contain his "demon within", Lam steeps his film in the kind of religious symbolism which he alluded to in his 'Fire of Conscience', whether is it with the choice of locations in funeral parlours and morgues or with his choice of emotively unsettling visual imagery commonplace in horror films, in particular recurrent images of human immolation.

Those who are fans of Lam's brand of urban action however need not be disappointed; right from the get-go, Lam impresses with a thrilling opening gunfight in the streets more violent than his usual and certainly more malevolent, especially with Hon's gang donning the masks of the Demon King. Another equally if not more exhilarating one unfolds on an overpass, and Lam reserves a petrol station for a fiery ending which aptly bears a blazing symbol of hell. Even as he ventures into dark psychological territory, it is indeed heartening to know that Lam hasn't lost his touch with delivering the sort of thrills which a large part of his early career was built on.

Certainly one could use the same to describe Daniel Wu's performance here, which easily surpasses anything he's done before. Digging deep to play a critically flawed character who has to confront his own monsters while attempting to stop another, Wu delivers one of his most challenging and therefore captivating roles to date. He is also well- matched with Lam regular Nick Cheung, who gets to ooze menace in every frame. It is as diametrically different a role from that of his award- winning one in 'Unbeatable', but one which cements his reputation as one of Hong Kong's most versatile actors around.

And with 'That Demon Within', Lam officially makes his cop thrillers with Cheung a trilogy, the latter of which also starred in 'Beast Stalker' and 'The Stool Pigeon'. It is as outstanding a trilogy capper as any fan can ask for, combining the earlier films' blend of gritty action and character-driven drama with psychological horror elements into a riveting whole that grabs you from the start and never lets go. It is also testament to a director who continues to push the envelope, certainly one of the most unique and original films to come out of Hong Kong this year.

Rio 2 (2014)
1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Don't go looking for 'Rio' in the Amazon - despite similar striking visuals, this Amazon-set sequel suffers from a distinct lack of story, character, humour and poignancy, 8 April 2014
6/10

Coming off a snappy and clever original, this sequel which is once again helmed by Brazilian director Carlos Saldanha and voiced by pretty much the same cast members feels lazy and perfunctory by comparison. In place of the playful vivaciousness of 2011's surprise hit is a frenetic hodgepodge of carefully engineered sequences that aim to be family sitcom one minute, a "fish out of water" premise the next, an environmental primer the next, and even an avian-based episode of "American Idol".

The excuse for the overcrowded story is the discovery by Blu's (Jesse Eisenberg) human keepers Tulio and Linda (Rodrigo Santoro and Leslie Mann) during an expedition into the Amazon rainforest that the blue macaws might not be quite so endangered as they had originally feared. That is enough for Jewel (Anne Hathaway) to convince Blu to take their brood of three on an expedition to meet their long-lost ancestors, despite the latter Minnesota-raised macaw's continued reliance on manmade gadgets stuffed into his fanny pack, including an all-purpose multi-tool and GPS navigation.

Returning to join in the fun deep in the heart of the jungle are Blu's pals - the party-hearty toucan Rafael (George Lopez) and his sidekicks, Nico (Jamie Foxx) and Pedro (the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am) - but this time, they have to contend for attention with Jewel's long-lost family, led by her proud authoritarian father Eduardo (Andy Garcia) and former childhood playmate Roberto (Bruno Mars). Further adding to the character clutter is Blu's former nemesis Nigel (Jemaine Clement), whose quest for vengeance finds company in the form of an adoring protégé - the poisonous frog Gabi (Kristin Chenoweth).

Oh and did we mention that there is also a group of illegal loggers who are desperate to keep all human attention out of the patch of forest? As you've probably guessed, that's just yet another one of many plot strands in the crowded yet underdeveloped script by the quartet of Don Rhymer (who passed away in 2012), Carlos Kotkin, Jenny Bicks and Yoni Brenner. Whereas the original bothered with wit and invention, the writers here seem to have adopted a 'go-for-broke' attitude, which explains why there are half-hearted musical interludes amidst a "Meet the Parents" equivalent that frankly reveal a hackneyed and insincere narrative.

The occasional puns aside, Saldanha compensates for the lack of any real sense of character and story by keeping things busy and hectic throughout. Making full use of the jungle backdrop, Saldanha ups the ante on the visual imagery, whether is it the plentiful song-and-dance numbers or the raucous action sequences. Aided once again by Sergio Mendes' presence as executive music producer, the former pop off the screen especially in a showcase of the macaws' synchronized flying routines set to Brazilian body-percussion group Barbatuques' 'Beautiful Creatures', as well as in a Carnaval-styled procession in the Amazon right at the end.

But despite the striking colourful aesthetic and the carnival-like atmosphere complete with plenty of samba and bossa nova music, older audiences will find themselves struggling to make it through even a relatively modest running time. Indeed, the diversions may work for the kids, but there is something scattershot about the entire enterprise that is hard to ignore, in particular coming off an extremely good year in animation with Disney's instant modern classic 'Frozen' and Warner Bros' 'The Lego Movie'. There is little to hook our imagination nor our attention once you look past the vivid scenery, and even less poignancy this time round with Blu pretty much left out in the blue no thanks to an overstuffed story.

On their part, the voice actors do their darnest best with each and every one of their respective roles - though the scene-stealer here is Clement, whose interactions with Chenoweth as his poison-frog sidekick are probably the most entertaining parts of the movie. But the chuckles come fewer and further in between than in the first outing to 'Rio', and despite being just as bright and cheerful on the outside, there is too little story, too many characters and too few decent gags to warrant this trip to the Amazon. You can take the birds out of Rio, but as much as the filmmakers have tried, there's no transplanting Rio into the Amazon, which probably explains why this incongruently titled sequel possesses few of what made its predecessor such a crowd-pleasing delight.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Rich in conspiracy and brimming with gripping action, this sequel takes the franchise - and the entire Marvel universe - in an exciting new direction, 26 March 2014
8/10

Compared to his Marvel stablemates Tony Stark/ Iron Man and Thor, Captain America was always on the surface a duller superhero, devoid of the personality that drives our iron-clad man in a suit or the sibling rivalry that afflicts our hammer-wielding Norse god. Put it simply, Captain Steve Rogers was as straightforward a hero as you could get - there was little that was complicated about his retro red-white-and-blue patriotism, nor for that matter his stout-hearted courage and sweet sincere decency.

Joe Johnston's origin story 'Captain America: The First Avenger' played smartly to these traits, emphasising the uncomplicated heroism of our square-jawed strapping spandexed protagonist as he fought against a band of power-mad Nazis known as Hydra at the height of World War II. Contrast that to the modern-day setting of this sequel from returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and you'll see why it's an entirely different kind of film altogether. Yes, this is a film built on Captain America's anachronism, one that emphasises just how out of place his old fashioned virtues seem to be against the realities of this modern age.

It isn't quite the fact that Steve doesn't have much a social life yet, which is the reason why his fellow SHIELD operative Natasha Romanoff or Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is constantly suggesting cute girls they know whom he could ask out; it isn't even the pop-culture of Steve Jobs, Marvin Gaye and Star Wars/Trek that he needs to catch up on. Rather, Steve's real displacement lies in his beliefs and values about authority and control. Indeed, when he learns from SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about the organisation's plans to develop a new fleet of massive helicarriers whose long-range weaponry can neutralize threats from way up in the atmosphere, he chillingly opines "This isn't freedom. This is fear".

If that fusion of mass surveillance and drone warfare seems to bear some form of real-world relevance, know that it is entirely deliberate. The past few Marvel movies have built SHIELD into an almighty organisation at the reins of a security council with no democratic oversight, tasked with the mission of protecting the peoples of the world against threats of a superhuman nature at all costs. And so, it is only befitting that the entire enterprise is now called into question, as Nick begins to suspect that there are much more sinister forces at work within SHIELD that may or may not have to do with his boss Alexander Pierce (played by none other than Hollywood legend Robert Redford).

Now Redford isn't the kind of actor who would readily take up such a role in a blockbuster franchise, so there must have been something which he saw in this that went beyond just another superhero action movie. As it turns out, he was right. Taking over the directorial reins from Johnston, co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo (best known for their work on TV's 'Community' and 'Arrested Development') pack their film with elements straight out of a 1970s conspiracy thriller, complete with Redford playing a familiar liberal crusader type that is slowly and surely turned entirely on its head.

To reveal anything more about the similarities between SHIELD and Hydra would be spoiling the satisfaction you'll get discovering their parallels, but suffice to say that it all points back to the Nazi organisation which Steve had thought was quashed by the end of the last movie. The relation between the two also explains the identity of his titular nemesis The Winter Soldier, whom Marvel fans will know is in fact the reincarnation of Steve's closest wartime buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and whose inevitable confrontations with Steve acquire some unexpected poignancy in the busy action-packed finale.

Lest it may seem that the geopolitical commentary has overshadowed the meat and potatoes of a Marvel product, we can reassure you that Joe and Anthony Russo can handle big-scale action sequences just as deftly. The opening mission in which Captain America leads an elite strike team to liberate a supposed SHIELD boat seized by pirates is stunning to say the least, as our hero turns out to be a lean mean fighting machine in addition to his superhuman strength, going at his opponents in never seen before bone-crunching goodness. A thrilling vehicular chase sequence involving Colonel Fury further confirms that the Russos' penchant for shooting action in hand-held for maximum gritty realism - and even though there is plenty of intrigue within the yarn, the action is pretty much relentless as well, with more than enough spectacle for good popcorn entertainment.

His third time in the role, Chris Evans proves to be more and more an absolute fit for the character. More so than before, Evans' disillusionment adds shades of complexity to what used to be simply a straight-up hero, notwithstanding the fact that his good looks and winning appeal are still more than enough to win over the female members of his audience. Johansson is an excellent foil to Evans, her sass and cynicism in nice complement to Evans' (perhaps naive) positivity. They make a great pair, and you'll quickly find yourself rooting for them to be a couple. In supporting parts, Anthony Mackie turns up now and then as a paratrooper veteran Steve turns to for assistance; but there is no doubt the scene-stealer here is Redford, who brings understated menace to a whole new level.

And so, instead of being content as a straightforward sequel, 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' takes the franchise and even the entire Marvel universe in a wholly different direction. There is still good and bad, heroes and villains, but what is clearer here is that the best of intentions could manifest itself as quite something else altogether. Action, intrigue, humour and even as political commentary, this sequel packs it all and is quite simply one of the best Marvel films to date.

Divergent (2014)
74 out of 141 people found the following review useful:
Shailene Woodley and Theo James make a good couple; unfortunately, true to its title, everything else in the movie seems to go off in the wrong direction, 19 March 2014
5/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Every studio hopes for a hit YA franchise, and in particular for Lionsgate-owned Summit Entertainment, the imperative is even stronger seeing as how they had unearthed that lucrative segment with the 'Twilight' series. And so 'Divergent' comes with high hopes that not only will it become hit YA property, it could potentially enjoy the same astronomical success as 'The Hunger Games', especially since both are of the sci-fi genre set in a post-apocalyptic world with fresh young faces.

Adapted from Veronica Roth's book, it imagines a dystopia where society is organised into five distinct factions based on personality types, each understanding and playing its role in order to keep the peace. These are Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite, the names rather self-explanatory in describing what they represent. Youths are tested at the age of 16, given two likeliest factions from the results of a hallucinatory test, and then at a Choosing Day ceremony made to pick one of the two in which they choose to belong.

As narrated by our lead character Beatrice Prior (The Descendants' Shailene Woodley), there are those fit into more than two categories which are labelled 'divergents' and cast out to live as homeless vagabonds on the pretense that they do not belong. Needless to say, Beatrice is a titular 'divergent', and warned by her testor (Maggie Q) that she must keep this information secret lest she be the subject of a witchhunt led by the leader of the snobbish Erudite faction Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet). So at her ceremony, unlike all the others, she exercises her free will to join the Dauntless, who train to be soldiers keeping the peace.

Even with the task of laying franchise groundwork, it is both surprising and disappointing how much time the movie spends inside the subterranean Pit where Tris and the rest of her initiates train under the tough yet tender Instructor Four (Theo James) and the harsh and controlling leader Eric (Jai Courtney). From sparring to knife throwing to shooting, screen writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor spend about an hour laying out Tris' Dauntless boot-camp training and the dynamics between the trainees, in particular with two Candors - one a snide competitor played by Miles Teller and the other a loyal friend played by Zoe Kravitz.

There is of course the budding romance between Tris and Instructor Four, the latter of which turns out to be a 'divergent' himself and who ends up teaching her how to overcome the final 'fear test' of her training. At no point however does director Neil Burger inject a sense of urgency into the proceedings, which unfold relatively unhurried and without consequence until the final half-hour. It is at best a drag, at worst a bore, and while parallels have been drawn between Tris' training and Katniss Everdeen's in 'The Hunger Games', you'll find the former here oddly devoid of danger or purpose.

Only in the last segment is there some measure of thrill as a power struggle between the Erudites and the Abnegations build up into real conflict unfolding on the streets of an already war-ravaged Chicago. Burger assumes that his audience's patience will eventually pay off in a rushed final act that throws everything it can into the mix - including some heavy urban warfare, exposition, shifts in character - but it is a peculiar case of 'too much too late' that ends up making you frustrated more than anything else. There is little poignancy even with two key supporting characters meeting their demises within the short span of ten minutes, and that is also a result of the film's flawed construct, which diminishes the familial bonds illustrated in the novel between Tris and her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) and twin brother (Ansel Elgort).

With little chance to flex her acting muscles, Woodley is hardly any match for Jennifer Lawrence, and indeed doesn't quite grasp her character well enough to put forth a consistent and compelling portrait of Beatrice. At least she does share some screen chemistry with Underworld: Awakening's Theo James, the bond that builds slowly between them rather winning to say the least. Other thespians like Winslet and Judd give solid supporting turns, though they are yet again hemmed in by a ham-fisted script that hews too closely to the book's straightforward prose.

On his part, Burger tries his best to build a convincing vision of a futuristic Chicago, but fails to convey the extent of a hyper- militarized and technologically advanced society on the verge of factional conflict. The postwar cityscape hardly leaves much of an impression, though the drug-induced mind trips that Beatrice takes boasts some degree of visual ingenuity that recalls Burger's far superior work in 'The Illusionist' and 'Limitless'. Worthy of special mention though is the score by Junkie XL (with Hans Zimmer listed as executive music producer), which hits the right notes more than you would expect in certain scenes.

Still, it's hard to imagine 'Divergent' being the kickstarter the way the first 'Hunger Games' movie was; though both share similar narrative blueprints, this adaptation feels inert where the latter is lively, failing to engage its audience with its female teenage protagonist's rite of passage. Unless you're a fan of the books, you'll probably be lukewarm about the next instalment 'Insurgent' whose production is already underway; indeed, true to its title, there is something off about 'Divergent' that never quite reconciles even till the end of the movie.

6 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
Running on nothing more than fumes, this interminably long road trip of a racing flick plays like a sluggish live-action 'Cars' than a new 'Fast and Furious' franchise, 8 March 2014
3/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

How do you turn a racing game into a movie? Well we guess the 'Fast and Furious' franchise offers a ready template, but anyone hoping for this video game adaptation to deliver the same kind of high-octane thrills will be sorely disappointed. And that's because instead of using that franchise as the most obvious reference point, the filmmakers have instead taken heed from Disney/ Pixar's 'Cars' and we kid you not, this resembles a live-action version of the animated film and comes off all the worse off for it.

Offering up as straightforward a story as you can get, first-time feature film writer George Gatins sets up a personal vendetta between local street racer Tobey Marshall and competitive racer Dino Brewster which forms the basis of the entire movie. High-school rivals whose fates have since diverged, the slicker California-based Dino challenges the less urbane Tobey to a race around their small town of Mt. Kisco, NY, in order to prove which among them is the better racer. Just because Dino happens to be engaged to Tobey's ex-flame Anita (Dakota Johnson), her brother Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), who also happens to be Tobey's good buddy, joins in the race as well.

Playing a one-two tag team, Tobey and Pete force Dino into pole position, which provokes the latter to ram Pete's vehicle from the back, causing it to spin, crash and catch fire spectacularly. Whereas Dino immediately flees the scene and finds an alibi, Tobey spends the next two years in jail for vehicular manslaughter. Upon his release on parole, Tobey immediately assembles his old crew to drive 45 hours across America to participate in an illegal race in California known as the DeLeon in order to exact vengeance and clear his name in the process.

Clocking in at an interminable 131 minutes, too much time is spent following Tobey and his buddies - Benny (Scott Mescudi), Joe (Ramon Rodriguez) and Finn (Rami Malek) - as they provide both ground and air support for Tobey's cross-country drive in a legendary Mustang that Carroll Shelby himself was purportedly building before he passed away. Amongst Tobey's crew, the most interesting of the lot is unquestionably Benny, who turns up in everything from a small prop plane to a news chopper to a military cargo chopper to provide air recon and eventually airlift to Tobey's Mustang.

Despite the addition of Brit actress' Imogen Poots as Tobey's wing 'woman' and obligatory romantic interest, there is little that Tobey and his crew can do to sustain your interest on the way to the expected finale. Pardon our bluntness, but Benny just isn't a very humorous 'black man' (think Tyrese Gibson in 'Transformers' or Ludicrous in 'Fast and Furious') no matter Gatins' attempt at milking that stereotype for all that it is worth. Joe and Finn hardly get much attention; the most you'll remember of the former is that he's a pretty skilled high-tech mechanic and of the latter that he strips completely naked somewhere during the movie to show that he's had enough of his corporate cubicle job.

In the absence of engaging moments of camaraderie, director Scott Waugh - his sophomore film since making his debut in the Navy SEALS drama 'Act of Valor' - tries to sustain the momentum by staging a fair number of high-speed car chases as Tobey tries to evade getting caught by the interstate police for violating the rules of his parole while getting noticed by the mysterious 'Monarch' (a terribly under-utilised Michael Keaton who spends all the time in the movie behind a console playing a video podcast radio show host) in order to get invited to the DeLeon.

Waugh's insistence at using real cars for each and every one of the stunts pays off to a certain extent - there's often no doubt you're seeing it for real on screen - but there is just something oddly disengaging about the manner in which the shots are edited together to form a coherent whole. Waugh's cinematographer Shane Hurlbut finds a variety of ways of putting the audience right into the point of view of the driver (in the spirit of the first-person perspective of the video game), and to give credit where it is due, there are a number of good heart-stopping Vertigo shots; but on the overall, none of the car chases are choreographed with the same imagination as you would expect from a Hollywood racing flick, which is OK only if you're expecting nothing more than reality-show type stunts.

In fact, the entire movie plays like a car stuck in second gear all the way through, incapable of revving up from a persistently sluggish pace even when it's close to the finishing line. The climax is nothing to shout for, even though it does total a number of expensive luxury cars that you'd wish the filmmakers had simply let you own instead. Waugh's heavy-handed tendencies with the more melodramatic scenes are also not what 'Breaking Bad' star Aaron Paul and his entourage manage to overcome; rather, Paul seems utterly out of his league playing the leading man here, coming off soft, ineffectual and thoroughly lacking in any sort of screen charisma.

Every which way you look, this movie adaptation of the popular video game series of the same name just doesn't cut it. The plotting is almost inexistent; the dialogue is awkward, stilted and often cringe-worthy; and the racing scenes barely raise a pulse for the modern-day viewer greased on them 'Fast and Furious' flicks. It would certainly have been better if Waugh had tried to launch a new 'Fast and Furious' franchise, rather than a live-action 'Cars' movie that leads its viewer along a road trip down half of America. True to its title, it demonstrates a desperate 'need for speed', which pretty much explains why it goes on and on (and on) for more than two hours.

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More blood and more slo-mo though not as artistic - this 'side-sequel' unfolding alongside the original '300' is better for Eva Green's scene-chewing villainous turn, 5 March 2014
6/10

'300: Rise of an Empre' isn't a sequel in the strictest sense of the word; rather, seeing as how King Leonidas and his small but mighty band of Spartans all but perished under the sheer numbers of the Persian army led by Xerxes in the three-day Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., this 'side-sequel' stands astride the events of the original film by taking place within the same concurrent period of time. Not to worry though - for those who can't quite recall what happened the last time round, there is enough backstory to make up for the seven-year wait in between the two instalments.

Taking the place of Leonidas is the Greek general Themistocles (Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton), who in the extended prologue is seen shooting an arrow straight into the heart of the invading Persian King Darius (Igal Naor) in battle. King Darius happens to be the father of Xerxes, but more significantly, he also had a surrogate daughter in the Greek-born Artemisia (Eva Green). The young Artemisia had been sold into slavery after the massacre of her parents by invading Greeks, and was rescued on the brink of death by none other than King Darius himself.

Returning to script and produce but not to direct is Zack Synder, who together with his co-screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, lay out some relatively heavy exposition in the first half hour drawn again from a graphic novel by Frank Miller. Though one may get the impression from the name of that novel 'Xerxes' that the emphasis should be on the Persian god-king, the more intriguing character here - as well as that given significantly more screen time - is that of Artemisia. Indeed, it is Artemisia whose motivation for revenge inspires the same of the grief-stricken Xerxes, the latter of whom then undergoes a transformation from human to god- like complete with gold-dipped skin, multiple piercings and his unmistakable glistening chrome dome.

Turns out that Xerxes' battle with King Leonidas was just one front of the Persian invasion of Greece; and since that story had already been told, this 'side-sequel' as we had described it earlier paints the other front in battle, one that takes place at sea between the two navies. Again, the Persians triumph in numbers, so the Greeks led by Themistocles employ some clever tactical manoeuvres to outwit the first two charges of the Persians, which Artemisia delegates to her generals to lead in order to observe - and test - the formidability of her opponent.

Taking over the directorial reins is the commercials ace Noam Murro, who stages the naval battles with plenty of visual flair. Each major sequence is different enough from the rest to offer real variety, and impresses not just with its sheer display of military might but also its detailing of Greco-Persian battle strategy - the last we have seen such an exciting combination of both was in John Woo's 'Red Cliff: Part Two'. Nonetheless, those hoping for a reprise of the blood-soaked violence in '300' need not worry; there is still plenty of beheadings, skewerings, and sword slashes - though we might add that there is perhaps a gratuitous display of arterial sprayings which could really be toned down a little.

Much less successful however is Murro's attempt to recreate the stylistics of Synder's original. Try though he might of aping its predecessor's mesmeric, affected visual presentation, Murro's film ultimately looks less elegant, the use of slo-mo in particular coming off obligatory and even pretentious. Whereas Synder preferred artistic compositions, Murro here prefers to leave war looking grittier and messier, which stand sometimes in contrast to the beautifully rendered digital backgrounds inserted once again by CGI wizards. Not surprisingly then, it isn't the man-on-man clashes that prove most spectacular this time round, but the swooping overhead shots of Greek ships going up against their clearly more daunting Persian armada.

While substituting Artemisia for Xerxes proves inspired, the same cannot be said of Themistocles for Leonidas. Not only does Themistocles come off bland compared to the macho-man heroics of Leonidas, Stapleton takes the role just too seriously, lacking in the charisma and self-awareness that Gerard Butler brought to his character. You're more likely then to be transfixed by Green, who portrays Artemisia's malevolence with scene- chewing glee. She knows exactly how to deliver each line of the intentionally stilted dialogue, adding just the right touch of vampiness to make them campily entertaining; nonetheless, it is very likely that one will remember the centrepiece sex scene between Themistocles and Artemisia where both take turns to prove themselves the 'man' in the 'f**king'.

If it isn't yet clear enough, Green is a big reason why this long- gestating sequel doesn't come off unnecessary. Like we said at the beginning, '300' isn't the most straightforward movie to stage a sequel; and even though this hardly matches the poetic storytelling of the original, there are still plenty of scenes of glorious bloodletting if that is your thing. We prefer though the visual spectacle that the impressively staged naval standoffs offer, and of course the spectacle that is Green's scene-stealing turn as a warrior queen. A word of caution too - don't expect a neat ending, for the open-ended conclusion suggests that the filmmakers think there is still lots of potential in the Greeks' eventual vanquishing of the Persians at Plataea and Mycale to continue the mythology of '300'.

A tonally uneven mix of action, comedy and family drama that is held together by the gruff charisma of its leading man, 2 March 2014

Luc Besson certainly knows something about career reinventions; after all, he wrote and produced one of the most unlikely of them in Hollywood with the lean and mean EuropaCorp-financed 'Taken', which made an unlikely action star out of Irish actor Liam Neeson. There's no secret that his latest, similarly written and produced by him, aims to do for the same for former Hollywood A-lister Kevin Costner, whose meteoric rise in the early 1990s with 'Dances with Wolves' and 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' never quite recovered from its swift descent in large part due to his hubris from vanity projects like 'Waterworld' and 'The Postman'.

And yet, as much as we had really hoped that '3 Days to Kill' would be the big-screen comeback for Costner that he much deserves, we are equally pragmatic about that prospect now that we've seen this McG- directed movie. Yes, we can safely say that this mishmash of action, comedy and family drama is hardly going to be the shot in the arm that will do for Costner's career what 'Taken' did for Neeson - and that is despite the obvious thematic similarity in the father-daughter dynamics between the two films. That is however no fault of Costner's, whose gruff charisma is the only reason that this tonally muddled comedy- thriller is anywhere near watchable.

To be sure, it isn't a persona that his fans should be unfamiliar with; indeed, from as far back as 'Bill Durham', Costner has made a career out of playing the cynic with a heart of gold. That said, it does take some getting used to seeing Costner this grizzled and downbeat, as if the years since have indeed taken a toll on the once boyishly dashing actor. With a paunch, jowls, and thinning hair shorn down to an unflattering buzz cut, Costner disappears right into the role of the veteran CIA field operative Ethan Renner whose unflappable demeanour is replaced by newfound vulnerability when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer and given but three months to live after an operation gone bad.

That explosive opening set in Serbia is the closest one gets to the kind of over-the-top action which McG of 'Charlie's Angels' and 'Terminator Salvation' is known for. It also establishes the de rigueur villain of the day, a Germanic arms dealer known simply as 'The Wolf' (Richard Sammel) and his right hand man referred to as 'The Albino' (Tómas Lemarquis). After blowing up an entire hotel, McG settles down - a little too much, we may add - as Costner returns to Paris to reconnect with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and teenage daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld), which in Besson and his co-scripter Adi Hasak's terms means lending fatherly advice over a bad hair day, visiting the amusement parks they used to go when Zooey was young and teaching Zooey how to ride a bicycle.

Deserving of special mention is how McG inserts a sly nod to one of Costner's biggest hits of the 1990s 'The Bodyguard' by getting him to carry Zooey out of a nightclub as he did Whitney Houston after saving the former from nearly being raped by three guys. Not so humorous however are Besson's attempt to inject humour while Costner is on the job, recruited as he is by a mysterious woman named Vivi (Amber Heard) who claims that she works for the director of the CIA and will give him an experimental drug that may cure his cancer if he assists her to track and kill 'The Wolf'; indeed, a sequence where Costner and Heard banters over what a goatee or a moustache looks like falls painfully flat.

For that matter, the comedy works only because Costner gamely goes through the motion with his deadpan comic flair. A recurring plot device has Costner extracting personal advice from his hostages - a recipe for spaghetti sauce in the case of an Italian accountant (Bruno Ricci) when Zooey calls so she can cook dinner for her boyfriend, Hugh (Jonas Bloquet); and some parental advice from a Middle Eastern limo driver (Marc Andreoni) linked to 'The Albino' whom he tortures by waxing the latter's bodily hair using sticky tape. All the while, Costner plays it straight and cool, which is always good for a few chuckles here and there.

If the comedy is sporadic, the action turns out even more so. Costner does some shooting now and then, but there's nothing on the scale of the opening. Even the finale is over just a bit too soon, unfolding over the course of some gunfire exchanged at yet another nightclub that is combined with an obligatory conflict with Christine upon her discovery that he is not yet fully retired. The only mildly memorable sequence is a one-on-one skirmish between Costner and an assassin in the deli section of a grocery store, which is also the only point in the movie that Costner gets to show off a little of that physical agility which Neeson displayed amply in 'Taken'.

But again, one senses that Besson had tried to pitch '3 Days to Kill' as something quite different from that unexpected hit. Yet he has also clearly overcompensated here, trying too hard to mesh a father-daughter reconciliation with a espionage thriller complete with a dying spy and a generous load of farce. You can literally see the strain in the material, held only by Costner's effortless self-deprecating charm. Clearly, he doesn't want his audience to take it too seriously, and if you're willing to look over the frays and flaws, you'll probably still find this a mildly pleasing diversion. It's still a missed opportunity for Costner though, who could really use a resurgence - after all, it has been a good half-dozen years since he is taking on a leading role on the big screen.

Non-Stop (2014)
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Check your disbelief like oversized baggage at the door, and you'll find that this high-altitude thriller makes for a perfectly entertaining if forgettable time, 27 February 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Continuing one of the most unlikely career reinventions in Hollywood, Liam Neeson is back in full-scale action hero mode reteaming with his 'Unknown' director Jaume Collet-Serra for a similar whodunit set on board an airplane. No matter that the Irish actor is now at a ripe old age of 61, he is perfectly cast as the grizzled United States air marshal Bill Marks, a recovering alcoholic grappling with some demons from his past that only become clearer much later into the film.

First-time screenwriters John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle send Neeson's Federal agent on a transatlantic flight from New York to London, where a seemingly uneventful night on the job quickly becomes something else when he receives a series of text messages warning that a passenger will be killed every 20 mins unless he arranges for $150 million to be transferred to a bank account within that time. Needless to say, the first deadline does expire and then another and then another, but the clues all point back to Bill himself, casting suspicion on the very individual we so easily assume to be the one who saves the day.

For Bill (and the rest of us who continue to believe that he is just being set up), there are plenty of possible suspects on board. Could it be Bill's chatty seat mate Jen (Julianne Moore) who seems to display an inordinate amount of concern for him? Could it be either one of the air hostesses air hostesses Nancy (Michelle Dockery) and/or Gwen (Lupita Nyong'o)? Could it be the co-pilot (Jason Butler Harner) who's never really trusted Bill? Could it be a hot-headed New York cop (Corey Stoll)? Or how about the thirty-something bespectacled dude (Scoot McNairy) who had tried to make small talk with Bill prior to the flight?

But if there's one thing that we know, it's that it cannot be the most obvious one of them all, a Muslim doctor Fahim Nasir (Omar Metwally) whom Bill regularly relies on to check the pulses and confirm the deaths of his victims. Tapping on our post-9/11 paranoia of airplanes, Serra and his screenwriters concoct a revolving door of possible stereotypical culprits that the smart viewer hopes that the film is smarter than to eventually pin blame on (rest assured, the film does eventually offer this small reassurance). That said, you should probably be prepared to be less than blown away with the revelation at the end, which strains to find motive for the crime but comes out falling short.

Is it any surprise that credibility isn't exactly the movie's strong suite? Indeed, if you're going to be scrutinising the proceedings for implausibilities, you might as well not even board this flight. A slightly more than moderate suspension of disbelief is necessary to fully enjoy the disposable B-grade thrills here, which among other things, assumes that there is still live broadcast TV coverage while the plane is travelling over international air space. On his part, Serra rewards those willing to check their disbelief at the boarding gate with brisk pacing designed to keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.

And you know what? He does succeed, to a large extent, and may we add, to a far greater extent that we had expected. Encouraging its viewer to play detective alongside Bill with what limited clues presented on screen, Serra further tightens the noose by making full use of the enclosed environment to induce a sense of claustrophobic danger. Nowhere is this more apparent than a full-on mano-a-mano brawl that takes place within the tight confines of the bathroom, where Neeson once again showing off his prowess at close-quarters grappling that was a trademark of his 'Taken' movies.

Unfortunately, those expecting the same level of excitement from these fight scenes will probably be disappointed. No thanks to the setting, there is very little room for Neeson to engage in many of these, and whether by artistic choice or spatial limitations, the photography remains too much in close-up mode. And yet Neeson remains undoubtedly the tough-guy hero of the movie first by his imposing physicality, but also more importantly by his thespian muscles that lend his tortured character plenty of gravitas despite some brutally stiff dialogue at the more supposedly poignant moments.

It is also Neeson who keeps the movie from flying off the rails even though it does get increasingly ludicrous in the third act on its way to an explosive finale. No surprises that there is a bomb on board, it does detonate mid-flight, and it does end with an emergency landing made under the most dire of circumstances that pretty much obliterates the plane from ever flying again - truth be told, it's been a while since we've seen a similar high-altitude set thriller on the big screen that its clichés no longer feel so. It's no 'Taken' that's for sure, but it packs a fair share of solid gripping thrills in between an Agatha Christie mystery that makes it perfectly watchable for those in need of an action fix.


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